Zwar > Notable People, Events and Places

Beechworth Tannery

“Zwar Bros Beechworth Tannery (1888 to 1961)” by Pat Doyle

Reproduced with kind permission of Pat Doyle.

Dodd and Hallahan

In 1858 the Ovens Tannery was established by Irishmen Matthew Dodd, then aged 22, and Dennis Hallahan. It was built adjacent to Gimlet Creek, about 3 kilometers from town, down what we now know as Malakoff Road. I suspect family life prompted this partnership to be dissolved after 8 years. Dennis married a Mary Cullen in 1865 and their first of seven children was born in 1866. A new partnership was formed in 1866 between Matthew Dodd and his brother, Thomas. Another brother John had commenced working for the Tannery in 1865. Dennis Hallahan died in 1900 and is buried in Corowa.

The Ovens tannery remained under the control of the Dodd family for a further 22 years. We have little information about its early operations except the tannery itself comprised four small buildings. The Tannery business and freehold was placed on the market in 1887 and purchased by William Zwar the following year.

Early records indicated the purchase price to be £500. We also know the Dodd family believed that young William Zwar would fail with this business. I don’t know why they thought this and I wonder how long it took the vendors to change their opinion? Matthew Dodd passed away in Beechworth on 15th Dec 1904, aged 67.

Michael Zwar

Now lets backtrack a bit!… In 1849 a 20 year old Michael Zwar traveled from Drehsa in Saxony to the busy German port of Hamburg. (Drehsa was in the Kingdom of Saxony near the Polish border in what we knew as East Germany). Michael was a Wend, not a German and he was of the Lutheran faith. His native tongue was Wendish ( a Slavic language similar to Polish ) and Michael could also speak fluent German. The Wends had no cultural ties with the Germans, but they were under German rule in the Kingdom of Saxony. On the 24th August 1849, Michael left Hamburg on the barque Pribislaw, arriving in Melbourne on 2nd February 1850.

In an excellent book titled “ from Hamburg to Hobson Bay” is a letter reproduced from Michael Zwar to his family in Dresha.

It is dated 1st June 1851. In it he discusses the pros and cons of emigration to Australia. The letter gives a priceless insight into Melbourne and also bush life of that pioneering time.

He was a hard worker, undertaking a variety of jobs. He eventually bought a half acre of land in a suburb called Pentridge, later to be called Coburg. The idea was to start a brick manufacturing business there, this never eventuated. Later on he conducted a successful haulage business. His haulage destinations included, of all places, Beechworth.

Michael married a 17 year old girl, Agnes Zimmer, on 12th April 1853. Agnes was also of the Wend nationality and she traveled with members of her family on the same passage as Michael Zwar. They would have known each other for at least 3 ½ years. Two years after their marriage they moved the family to land they had purchased in Broadford. Michael and Agnes had 11 children. There was no Lutheran Church in or even near Broadford so the Zwar children were raised in the Church of England. Three of these children, William, Albert Michael and Henry Peter were to become associated with the golden years of the Beechworth Tannery.

The information we have on Michael Zwar is quite good. He was known as a bit of a bush lawyer, intelligent and respected in the Broadford community. He was elected to the Broadford District Roads Board in 1869. He then served on the Broadford Shire Council, from its formation in 1874. We know he had an ongoing problem with alcohol, best described as binge drinking. He died of heart failure in 1900, aged 71.

Agnes Zwar

Sadly we have little information on our pioneering women. Agnes Zwar is no exception. On limited information there is much to like about this woman. I believe that she was the foundation stone for the Zwar dynasty. She had been a strong influence in the character moulding of all her children. They all grew into people of integrity. Two of her boys became members of the Victorian State Parliament. Years later it was remarked by her son, Henry, that she never turned away anyone in need. All the “ Sundowners “ who arrived at their place were always fed and refreshed then sent off with enough food and water to comfortably reach their next destination. She died in 1891, aged 55. She had been unwell for some 7 months prior to her death.

William Zwar at Dry Creek, Broadford

It was in Broadford that a Tannery was operating at Dry Creek, under the astute management of an Englishman, Charles Lloyd. It was here on 13th June 1877 that William Zwar was indentured as an apprentice for 5 years. He came out of his apprenticeship on 30th June 1882. The deal was this: His board and lodgings were provided for and he worked a twelve hour day, From 6.00 am to 6.00 pm. Now here is the rub!
He was paid:
Nothing for the 1st year.
Nothing for the 2nd year.
5/– per week for the 3rd year.
10/– per week for the 4th year.
20/– per week for his final year.

When William Zwar was 22, he married Lucy Eleanor Smedley on 3rd March 1884. They had one child, a daughter, named Emily. William Zwar died in 1933, aged 72.

By 1888 young William Zwar had been managing the Dry Creek Tannery for about 5 years. At this time his 25 year old brother, Albert Zwar, conducted a small business in Yarrawonga. Albert had previously worked as a clerk for Eliza Tinsley Pty Ltd in Melbourne, where he received a good clerical and financial background.

It was at this time that William had heard that the Ovens Tannery in Beechworth was on the market. We know that William conferred with his brother, Albert, prior to purchasing the Tannery.

Zwar Bros and Co.

William & Albert Zwar and Leonard LLoyd

The new owners of the Tannery consisted of three equal partners: William Zwar, who had the production expertise, Albert Zwar, was the figures man and Leonard Lloyd, (the proprietor of Eliza Tinsley) he was the money man. This partnership was registered as Zwar Bros and Co. And so the famous influence of the Zwar Bros over this Beechworth Tannery had begun. The younger brother, Henry was apprenticed to the Tannery in 1889, aged 16 years. In his own words he said he was paid 15/– a week but had to pay 15/– a week board. Even though his brothers owned the Tannery they showed him no special favours. He was later admitted into the partnership, having only a minor interest until 1900, although records to this fact are inconclusive.

Early Days

At the time of purchase the Tannery employed 15 men, with an annual wage bill of £857. Processing 30 hides a week. The talents of the Zwar family became evident immediately. By 1896 the Tannery was employing 30 men and the weekly output of hides had increased to 210. The company was concentrating on sole leather, although they also produced a small amount of dressed leather of varying classifications. The majority of raw hides were being purchased locally for processing. The Tannery had developed a reputation for producing a high quality finish and a particular softness to some leathers. It is said that the purity of the local water was responsible for this softness. 200 tons of wattle bark, from Euroa, was required annually for the tanning process.

Albert Zwar Marries

In 1893, Albert had married a Harriet Augusta Lawrence, who was a member of a very well known Beechworth family. Her late father had been a fine saddler. Albert and Harriett were to eventually have six children. The family home was ‘Wyuna’ at 8 Church St., Beechworth. You may identify the house as that where, until recently, Dr Richard Smith lived. Tragically the youngest two children were to predecease their parents. Una died in 1902, aged 7 months and Leila Aida died in 1923, aged 17 years. Both were laid to rest with their mother’s parents.

There is no question that Albert Michael was the driving force behind the success of the tannery and eventually he became its sole controller. He was autocratic and forceful with an astute business mind. He also had a strong sense of community, but more about that later.

By 1896 the tannery was exporting 9 tons of products per month to such places as England, China, Japan and India. In these years production was mainly in saddlery and sole leathers. Interestingly the company also traded in calf, goat, horse, kangaroo, wallaby, possum and rabbit skins.


By 1900, numerous properties adjoining the Tannery had been acquired by members of the Company. In later years additional purchases were made. Sheep and cattle were raised as well as potato and tobacco growing.

In the early 1900’s Zwar Bros and Co started providing leather to a leather goods manufacturer in Collingwood. The brand name of this company became famous throughout Victoria. The Name was that of “T W Sherrin” the football manufacturer.

Henry Zwar

Henry Zwar was foreman at the plant by 1898, on a wage of 48/– per week. He married a Jane Freier Cunningham on 28th March 1899 at Beechworth. They were both 25 years old. They had 3 children. Beryl, Enid and Herman. Henry was the independent MLA for Heidelberg from 1932 to 1945. He was awarded an O.B.E. in 1950 by King George VI. Henry died, aged 85, on 12th January 1959. He was the last of Michael and Agnes’ children to pass away.

William Zwar retired from Zwar Bros and Co in 1900 to purchase a tannery at Preston. Henry later was to say “ I was offered William’s third share of the business but could only borrow enough for one ninth of that third share.” Henry continued his partnership until 1918 although he had already joined William’s Preston venture in 1911. Leonard Lloyd (of Eliza Tinsley. ) dissolved his partnership with Albert and Henry in 1914 for £9,000.

Military Production and Fire

At the outbreak of the Great War the Beechworth Tannery won large contracts to supply leather products to the military forces of the governments of Australia, South Africa, India and Britain. The entire tannery was geared for these military productions with output being at an historical high when devastation struck. In September of 1915, the entire building complex was totally destroyed by fire, the cause of which still remains a mystery today. The economic reality of that time was to move the entire operation to Melbourne, remember that the family already had interests in a tannery in Preston. Albert Zwar displayed his loyalty by rebuilding the Tannery in Beechworth on a larger and more modern scale. An added sweetener was Albert’s success in negotiating reduced rail freight costs with the Victorian Railways Commissioners. Little unemployment occurred during the rebuilding phase as many employees were transferred temporarily to the Preston Tannery.

Albert Zwar Family Members

About the period of the 1st World War, four members of Albert’s immediate family joined the staff of Zwar Bros. They were Doris, Keith, Raymond and Bernard. It is worth mentioning that as with most Australian families of this time, the Zwar family had boys serving in the armed forces. Keith was with the 8th Light Horse in Palestine and Raymond served with the Reinforcements. This would have been rather poignant for the Zwar family because at this time anyone with a Germanic sounding name or background was treated with suspicion, frequently ridiculed or even given a good belting.

Albert Zwar Sole Owner

On the 1st July 1918 the partnership between Albert and Henry Zwar was dissolved by Deed leaving Albert as the sole owner of Beechworth’s Zwar Bros and Co.

Leather Enamelling Patent

In 1918 Raymond Zwar returned from studying upper leathers in Preston and he was acknowledged for developing a highly profitable patent leather enameling department. This style of leather was produced in many colours for the shoe and handbag industries. The output from this department grew to 1800 sides per week.

Glue Factory

In 1919 Raymond was again sent away, this time to Adelaide (Maybe the family was trying to tell him something?) He went to study the manufacture of glue from animal fleshings and offal. A glue factory commenced at the tannery, and eventually Raymond produced high grade cabinet and joiners glue. Technical gelatine was produced and used in the manufacture of printers rollers.

White Leather

1919 was a busy year for expansion. A Preston chrome tanner, Henry George Kelly was enticed to Beechworth as a shareholder with a service agreement for 5 years. Kelly was the Australian originator of the white leather marketed under the trade name “Trubuck”. This was a form of imitation buckskin. Bernard Zwar was closely associated with this success. It was the first white leather made anywhere in Australia and the trade could not get enough of it. A new building was built to cater for the huge demand.

On the 23 March 1920, the company was incorporated as a Proprietary Limited Company under the name of Zwar Bros Pty Ltd. The Articles of Association named Albert as Governing Director with full powers of control. Every member of Albert’s immediate family were allotted shares.

At this time exports were expanding rapidly. For example in 1919 overseas shipments, to London alone, exceeded 315 tons to a value of £72,714.

Motor Car Trimming

In 1922, with the advent of the affordable motor car (complements of Henry Ford) a vast amount of upholstery leather was being produced. Albert Zwar sailed to England to purchase a large quantity of ‘whole hide’ machinery suitable for hides required for motor trimming. Following his return from overseas and later that same year he stood for election in the Victorian Parliament. He was elected unopposed to represent the North Eastern Province as an MLC. In fact he was never opposed at any election while a parliamentarian. He remained a member of Parliament until his death in 1935.


With all this continuing expansion during the 1920’s a concrete cool store was built to house some 30,000 hides and skins. This raw product was perishable and it was critical no deterioration took place. The cool store was accessed and serviced by a tramline within the tannery. The cool store was later upgraded to thermostatically controlled, refrigerated chilling rooms.

Water Supply

Another expansion about this time was to the water supply. The original dam built by William Zwar back in 1889 and the added supply, in 1916, from a 3” pipe off Beechworth’s water supply was no longer adequate. So at a liquidation sale of the Rocky Mountain Extended Gold sluicing Co. in 1921, the tannery purchased the tunnel under the town together with a water right from the Rose Reef at Silver Creek for the sum of £35. The tunnel had previously cost £30,000 to complete between 1876 and 1880. Water was siphoned off in a 6” pipeline to the tannery reservoir. Water was never again a problem.

In 1925 an automatic sprinkler system was installed covering the entire premises. This system proved successful in blanketing numerous small fires over the following years.

From Steam to Diesel Plus Electricity 1927

In 1926 power was converted from steam to fuel oil with the introduction of two Ruston Diesel engines. As this upgrade produced excess electricity the tannery entered into an agreement with the United Shire of Beechworth to provide 24 hour electricity to the town at 4 pence per Kilowatt unit. The electricity came via a sub-station in Albert Road, next to the old gas works (where the library is currently situated). This service started on the 8th June 1927. The supply continued satisfactorily to both parties until 1st July 1946. On this date the SEC took over supplying electricity to both town and tannery. In that 19 year period the tannery supplied Beechworth with 3,150,000 kilowatt hours of power. (In 1936 a Crossley 350hp diesel engine replaced the older diesel engines.)

By 1928 the Beechworth Tannery covered over 6 acres and was spending up to £40,000 a year on wages and over £3,000 a year on freight. By this time freight costs had contributed to the closure of the vast majority of country tanneries. The number of tanneries in rural Victoria had reduced from 40 odd to only 4. Some relief was later obtained from a Government Decentralisation Grant. All finished products were being rail freighted to Melbourne then onforwarded to final destinations. It is worth recording that all finished products and raw materials had been carted the 3 kms to and from the Beechworth railway station by Robert Scott, a local general carrier, using horse and carts and in later years continued on by his grand children using the old Chevrolet Mapleleaf trucks.

J. J. McCauley states in his notes that the tannery was now using about 400 tons of wattle bark each year. Supplies were becoming difficult to obtain thus some was even sourced from South Africa.

The decline in the use of harness leather, during this period, was more than compensated with the amount of leather required for motorcars and furniture.


The cost of waste disposal was virtually non-existent, for tannery effluent was washed into the creek and then caught in small weirs built within the creek. These acted like settling ponds where the tannery waste decomposed and was then sold off as fertilizer. Quantities of spent tan was dried and sold off to nurseries and race clubs.

The Christmas Party

It was the custom from the very early days for management to provide a Christmas Party each Christmas Eve. It consisted of beer, soft drinks, cheese and biscuits. Between 9 and 36 gallons of beer would be consumed together with dozens of Murray Brewery products. Originally workers brought along there own tin pannikins, in later years glasses were provided. The Tannery had also organized picnics and outings throughout the years which were quite famous and always well attended.

By the mid twenties Zwar Bros Pty Ltd owned many properties in Beechworth and surrounding rural areas. Many of their workers lived in rental houses that were owned by the company.

The Depression Years

During the Depression years of 1928 to 1934 all industries suffered the same disastrous downturns in production and profitability. Zwar Bros Pty Ltd were no exception. Employment plunged from around 180 workers to about 80. All single men were the first to be laid off. These were desperate times. To keep as many men on the payroll as possible, some men were rostered to work one week in two or one week in three. Naturally there were times of tension between employer and employee, there could not be anything else. Workers had the constant dread of being laid off. Zwar Bros Pty Ltd made continuing large losses for 6 years, not showing a profit from 1928 to the end of the 1934/5 financial year. Interestingly the government institutions in Beechworth were not affected by the depression. These were run with government money and people employed there just did not get laid off.


In July 1930 the newspaper and printing business of The Ovens and Murray Advertiser was purchased by Raymond Albert and Bernard Michael Zwar. This ownership, under management, continued for 16 years. They sold it in 1946.

Death of Albert Zwar

The Tannery was starting to recover from the ravages of the depression years when Albert took ill. He eventually passed away nearly a fortnight later, on Saturday 23rd Feb 1935. Albert was aged 71. Days earlier he had been operated on by his cousin, the brilliant surgeon, Dr Bernard Zwar. Two days after his death he received a state funeral for his dedicated service to parliament and the people of Victoria. Members of Parliament and other Victorian dignitaries joined family and friends at his funeral service. But the most telling tribute was paid when over 150 workers from the Tannery marched in front of the funeral cortege.

During the Depression years Albert was responsible for the establishment of the Stanley pine forest and completing the southern end of the Gorge Road thus making it a continuous circuit. He funded these projects by lobbying successfully for unemployment relief money. It is said that he was involved in every sport located in Beechworth, with the exception of ‘two-up’. He was president of the bowling club for 26 years. Albert served on the hospital board for 20 years and was a loyal supporter of the Church of England. He helped many a young person get a start in business, on a number of these occasions his one stipulation was that his help was to remain anonymous. He was a most generous contributor to all forms of charitable endeavour.

Following the death of Albert, His son Keith Zwar became a most capable Managing Director with his other two sons, Raymond and Bernard being on the board as Directors. Even with the introduction of the 44 hour week on 1st September 1935, business was rapidly returning to pre-depression levels. By 1938 there were 200 staff employed at the Tannery.


During 1939 with Australia being on a war footing, many of the workers joined the armed forces and the payroll gradually reduced to under 100 men. Hides became a major problem as all tannery allocations were on a quota system. Eventually the tannery was classified as a protected industry, which enabled easier purchasing of materials and labour.

Booming Years after War

After the war the leather export market boomed with sales to all parts of the world. By 1950 a complete new steam generating plant was built with a 100 ft brick chimneystack. The base and furnace consist of 8,000 bricks from Hoffman’s in Brunswick. The chimneystack proper has 33,000 bricks in it from Chiltern. These were trucked in by a teenage Graham Smart and his father. It was fuelled by over 2000 cords of wood annually. A cord of wood is 128 cubic feet of wood. This complex cost £25,000. The chimneystack still survives today.

Leather Trim on FX & FJ Holdens

From 1948 Zwar Bros Pty Ltd was one of only three tanneries supplying General Motors Holden with leather trim for their famous FX and then FJ model motor vehicles.


In the early 1950’s good men were hard to find and wage costs were increasing rapidly. Labour problems were solved with workers coming from the Bonegilla Migrant Centre, including women, who were being paid full male rates. A hostel was set up on Tannery premises to provide initial accommodation for migrants, as accommodation was in short supply.

Raymond and Bernard Zwar retire

In July of 1953, both Raymond Albert and Bernard Michael Zwar retired. Between them they had given over 70 years service to the family business and they walked out with irreplaceable technical knowledge and on-floor expertise.

Raymond Albert passed away on 19th September 1962, aged 64.

Bernard Michael passed away on 19th May 1968, Aged 68.

In 1953 an extensive building program was introduced with new buildings and structural alterations to further reduce handling costs. This program brought the Tannery up to modern standards. This program was still in progress in 1957.

Keith Zwar and Sale

Keith Zwar’s health had been a concern since 1954 and by 1956 it was a major issue. He was in such a bad way it was decided to sell the Tannery as a going concern. At all times there was a moral condition of sale that the operation continue in Beechworth. A sale was negotiated and Michaelis Hallenstein and Co Pty Ltd of Footscray took control of operations on 1st July 1957. Keith Zwar passed away 4 months later on 7th November 1957.

Final Years

The 1957/58 financial year proved very profitable for the new owners. This was the year for perforated leathers and demand was high. The only machine in Australia that could supply leather with this finish was in Beechworth. This machine was purchased in 1938. Many other lines of leather were eliminated by the new owners and so when the fashion driven demand for perforated leathers diminished, it left the tannery in a terrible plight.

By 1961 the output from the Tannery was pitiful. The remaining 80 workers were only processing 250 hides per week for women’s fashion, leathers and glue.

All operations ceased in December 1961. The Registered Office and stock was transferred to the Footscray Tannery of Michaelis Hallenstein and Co.

The Beechworth Tannery buildings and fittings were sold both privately and at auction, the remnants sold to a wrecker. The land was sold to an adjoining landholder.

The loyal staff of 80 men and women were dismissed. Some were given the option of transferring to the Footscray operation. This was utter devastation for the town of Beechworth and came only 4 years after the new owners accepted the moral agreement of maintaining the Tannery in Beechworth.

The life and times of Zwar Bros Tannery had just become a memory.

© Pat Doyle of Beechworth